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Armed Forces

Ukrainian Warship Built in Poland Engaging the Russians

Ukrainian landing ship, with its old U401 tactical designation, during an exercise involving the use of the WM-18A launcher, back in 2013.
Photo. Ukrainian Ministry of Defence

History goes in circles. Recently an interesting movie clip has been publicized. If it is real, it shows a Ukrainian landing ship built in Poland for the USSR Navy, attacking Russian positions on the coast.

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Recently we have been describing the most courageous of the Ukrainian military units that have received distinctions in 2022 or were named after patrons. Yuriy Olefirenko (Юрій Олефіренко) medium-size landing ship could have been found among them. It was awarded the "For Valor and Courage" distinction ("За мужність та відвагу"), by President Volodymyr Zelensky, based on decree 434/2022, issued on 23rd June 2022. Back then it was unclear, as to what the grounds for that distinction were. After the aforesaid movie clip was publicized, it may be assumed that the depicted, and other engagements, became the basis for that award.

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Back in the 1960s, the Polish Westerplatte Heroes Northern Shipyard in Gdansk (currently known as Remontowa Shipbuilding S.A.), launched a series manufacturing of medium size landing ships for the USSR and Polish Navies. They were being built in Gdansk until 1973, in series as follows:

  • 15 - Project 770D;
  • 4 - Project 770M;
  • 4 - Project 770T;
  • 23 - Project 770MA;
  • 19 - Project 771;
  • 17 - Project 771A;
  • 8 - Project 773;
  • 1 landing Project 776 operation command vessel.

23 of those warships were commissioned in the Polish Navy (Projects 770, 771, 776), while the remaining ones were received by the USSR. Many of the vessels manufactured for the USSR were later on received by other, befriended nations.

L 401 Yuriy Olefirenko medium landing ship, built at the Northern Shipyard in Gdańsk.
Photo. Ukrainian Ministry of Defence
L 401 Yuriy Olefirenko landing ship.
Photo. Ukrainian Ministry of Defence

When the manufacturing had come to an end in Gdansk, export manufacturing was launched at the Polish Navy Shipyard in Gdynia. Another 17 vessels were built there:

  • 4 - Project 773I - for India;
  • 4 - Project 773IM - for India;
  • 4 - Project 773K - for Iraq;
  • 4 - Project 773KL - for Libya;
  • 1 - Project NS-717 - for Yemen.

108 landing ships as such were built in Poland in total, which means that this is one of the longest series of landing vessels built, ever since WW2. As the Northern Shipyard (Stocznia Północna) was the main manufacturing entity, the vessels have received the NATO Codename Polnocny class.

In the early 1990s, the remainder of Polnocny-class landing ships were being decommissioned in the USSR. When the Black Sea Fleet was being divided between Ukraine and Russia, only two Project 773 vessels remained there - SDK-82 and SDK-137. Based on the memorandum concluded on 28th May 1997, the SDK-82 was transferred to the Russian Navy, while SDK-137 was received by the Ukrainians.

SDK-137 was built in Gdansk, with a 773/2 shipyard designation. The keel was laid on 21st April 1970, and it was launched on 31st December 1970. It was ultimately handed off to the USSR Navy on 31st May 1971, following a tethered trials and sea trials programme, preceding the conclusion of the handing off act. After the Soviet flag was raised on it, the vessel has always been a part of the Black Sea Fleet. The SDK-137 designation was secret - the tactical numbers it wore changed frequently: 365, 378, 369, 366, 370.

After being taken over by Ukraine it received the name Kirovohrad (Кіровоград) and U 401 designation. It became a part of the 5th Surface Warships Brigade. Initially, all of the Ukrainian Navy vessels received tactical designations starting with the letter U, for quick ID. In 2018 the system was changed to one similar to the designations used by many nations. The number was changed to L401. The ship had also been renamed. Following a Presidential Decree no. 290/2016, issued on 3rd July 2006, the ship was named Yuriy Olefirenko (Юрій Олефіренко). Commander Yuriy Olefirenko served first in the Soviet, then in the Ukrainian Army. Between 2014 and 2015 he commanded the Ukrainian 73rd Naval Special Operations Center. He was declared KIA on 16th January 2015, during an operation taking place in occupied Donetsk. He used his own body to separate his soldiers from mortar bomb fragmentation.

Despite its old age, the ship built in Poland is still in operation in 2022, taking part in yet another phase of the Russian-Ukrainian war. The movie clip showcased shows salvos of 140 mm unguided rockets, being launched from the L401. All Project 770, 771, and 773 vessels built in Gdansk received 2 WM-18, or WM-18A rocket launchers, also designed in Poland. These launchers were designed to provide rocket artillery support for the landing units.

Ukrainian L 401 Yuriy Olefirenko landing ship, WM-18A launchers clearly visible.
Photo. Ukrainian Ministry of Defence
L 401 Yuriy Olefirenko landing ship.
Photo. Ukrainian Ministry of Defence

The new system, designed specifically for the Polnocny-class vessels was designed between the 1950s and 1960s. M-14-OF HE rockets came straight from the Soviet BM-14 system. The WM-18 (Naval Launcher, 18 rockets) launcher was designed at the Military Institute of Armament Technology. The WM-18/WM-18A launchers were then manufactured at HSW and the WSK Warszawa-II facilities. The reloading process was executed manually, with the involvement of electrical transporters, bringing 3 rockets up in one go. After manually loading the launcher, the rocket crew of 2 sailors moved to the launcher room, under the main deck, to aim it. One of the sailors dealt with elevation, while the other handled the target bearing. The open command station for the WM-18 launcher, with sight, is located on the open deck, above the superstructure's second level. The ammunition storage was spacious enough to accommodate up to 180 M-14-OF rockets, enough for five full launcher runs.

WM-18A launcher specification sheet:

  • Quantity of barrels: 18
  • Rocket round type: M-14-OF (HE)
  • Rocket calibre: 140.4 mm
  • Barrel length: 1,370 mm
  • Maximum range: 9,810 m
  • Maximum velocity of the rocket: 400 m/s
  • Rocket length: 1,085 mm
  • projectile weight: 39.6 kg
  • Launcher weight, dry: 1,475 kg
  • Max. elevation angle: + 60 °
  • Min. elevation angle: - 15°

The combat operations involving a 51-year-old medium landing ship built in Poland, at Stocznia Polnocna in Gdansk, including the rocket launch involving launchers manufactured at HSW constitute a good testimonial for the Polish designers, shipbuilders, and industry practitioners. Above all, however, it is a true expression of the valour of the Ukrainian sailors.

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